Beyond Flood Aid

PRESIDENT Clinton's weekend return to the flood-stricken Midwest to meet with officials from the affected states appropriately focused on the immediate question of disaster aid.

But as that aid begins to flow, the White House would do well to consider another meeting of more strategic importance for the region: one focusing on flood-control and land-use strategies to minimize the impact of future floods.

As of this writing, preliminary damage estimates from the floods along the upper Mississippi River and its tributaries have reached as high as $10 billion. Some 30,000 people have been left homeless, 27 people have died, 8,000 homes and businesses have been destroyed, and at least 10 million acres of farmland have been inundated.

During this weekend's session in Arnold, Mo., the president emphasized that the $2.45 billion aid package he announced last week would be likely to grow. But he also noted that Washington was not going to come close to covering many of the losses.

Many scientists and environmentalists say the system of levees and dams subverts the river's natural flood-control mechanism, in which the excess water flows into wetlands and flood plains. By forcing the water into a narrower channel, levees raise the flood level several feet beyond where it otherwise would be. Some wonder whether at least some sections of levee breached by the current flood should not be rebuilt.

Yet as Brig. Gen. Stanley Genega, director of civilian works for the US Army Corps of Engineers points out, "If the Mississippi were to start on a path to wipe out New Orleans, would we let it happen?" Moreover, once the levees were breached, the brief reduction in the flood level disappeared as the floodwaters resumed their rise.

Attempts to improve flood control along the nation's most critical inland waterway needn't involve choices between stark alternatives. Levees could be built farther back from the nominal riverbank. Broad parklands along the river could help preserve flood-absorbing wetlands. But these or other approaches may mean rezoning valuable land or moving people who have strong attachment to their homes or farms. Hence the need for a thorough airing of the issues.

At the weekend meeting with Mr. Clinton, Gov. Arne Carlson (R) of Minnesota asked the right question: "How can we take this disaster and turn it into an asset...?"

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